Charles Dickens Great Expectations Moral and Social Issues
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Charles Dickens published Great Expectations chapter by chapter. This meant that Dickens had to intrigue, amuse and almost addict the audience in order for the novel to continue selling. He ensured this happened by ending each chapter on a ‘cliff-hanger’. This is evident in the first chapter where we see Pip petrified at the hands of the convict (Magwitch) out on the marshes. He tells Pip, ‘You get me a file and you get me wittles. You bring ’em both to me. Or I’ll have your heart and liver out’. The chapter then ends with Pip sprinting back home. Since we sympathise with Pip, we feel his helplessness and the full tension of the scene.
By the first chapter, Dickens already seizes the audience’s attention and undoubtedly starts to addict us. Another example of Dickens ending the chapter at a moment of anticipation is when we find out that Mrs. Joe ‘had been knocked down by a tremendous blow to the back of the head’. We are curious to find out if it is the end to the character of Mrs. Joe. Dickens again drip feeds us information by ending the chapter at a moment of anticipation which forces us to want to read on and therefore buy the next instalment. Dickens often ends the chapters by setting up dangerous situations for the characters we are fond of, so that we buy the next instalment because we desperately want to know if they will survive.
This use of serialisation affected the way Dickens had to write ‘Great Expectations’. Since the book was usually read over a long period of time, characters needed to be easily recognised when they reappeared. Therefore, Dickens had to describe each character with specific appearances, speech and gestures. Firstly, Dickens used a technique called characternym. This is when the characters’ names gave an idea of the character. For example, ‘Pip’ represents a small and almost helpless boy whilst ‘Wopsle’ represents a person who fails humorously in things he does. Secondly, Dickens used speech to give each character a personality. We can see this on when Joe says, ‘Why, here’s a J, and a O, Pip, and J-O, Joe’. We find this amusing and comical, and we therefore find him endearing. Furthermore, Dickens uses gesture and physicality to help us recognise characters. An example of this is during the Christmas Meal when Pip received much criticism from other relatives, so Joe kept giving him more gravy. Another example is when Mrs. Joe throws Pip across the room, but Joe catches him and protects Pip. The serialisation affected Dickens style of writing; it forced him to develop the characters which ensured that we built a relationship with many of them. This played an important role in addicting and amusing the audience.
Dickens did not merely write ‘Great Expectations’ for monetary reasons, but he also tries to bring attention to the increasing social stratification in Victorian London. We are constantly reminded that one does not have to be wealthy to be happy. An example of this is through the character Pip. Throughout the novel, we see Pip suffering not only at the hands of his sister, but also due to his inability to gain Estella’s love. Pip falls in love with Estella from the moment he sees her, and always tries to win her love. She calls him ‘common’ and ‘coarse’ and criticizes him for his working class background, which destabilises Pip. This deeply hurts Pip; he is broken and forced to contemplate the possibility that he is sub-human. Consequently, Pip develops contempt for his family’s lack of wealth and tries to climb to social ladder. He says to himself, ‘It’s the most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home’. In the Victorian Era, the only way of changing fortune was to have a rich benefactor. Pip got what he wanted; he became a rich gentleman. When the convict re-appears in London to meet Pip, we can see that Pip has infinite luxuries:
“A diamond all set round with rubies; that’s a gentleman’s, I hope! Look at your linen, fine and beautiful! Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got! And your books too, mounting up, on their shelves, by hundreds!”
We can also see that he has learnt the codes of behaviour of a gentleman when he asks the convict, ‘pray, what is your business?’ and ‘why do you, a stranger coming into my rooms at this time of the night, ask that question?’ The language Pip uses is very formal and complex. His use of words such as ‘pray’ and ‘business’ along with his long and almost elegant question shows that he has developed into a proper gentleman. Furthermore, he even has an honest and true companion, Herbert, who supports Pip in everything he does, and even saves Pip’s life. Despite this, his life is full of emptiness and superficiality. This is because his wealth is not from his own-doing or hard work, but from the convict’s. We get the impression he isn’t living in the real world as we know it; everything is handed to him. Therefore, Dickens is suggesting that money does not buy happiness. We also see this in the character of Miss Havisham. Dickens describes her house as ’empty’, ‘full of dark passages’ and containing ‘pale decayed objects’. He also describes the house like a prison:
“Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred.”
Dickens uses negative imagery to describe her house. We get a feeling that her house is enclosed, with Miss Havisham behind the bars trapped inside it. Dickens even describes her as ‘withered like her dress’ and ‘had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes’. He is again using negative adjectives to describe her. She is extremely wealthy, but all of is gone to waste; the decaying woman is clearly unhappy. Dickens is showing us that the wealthy are not necessarily happy either. This hugely contrasts with the relationship of Joe and Biddy whom live happily and comfortably without opulence. It is also noticeable in Herbert’s love for Clara which brings contentment. Dickens is also suggesting that people should recognise and appreciate what they have instead of searching for the impossible.
Furthermore, it is also apparent that he tried to raise some important issues. The story was written with a moral purpose in order for the audience to reflect on number of points. Not only is Dickens saying that money does not necessarily buy happiness, but he is also suggesting that money is a corrupting influence. We see this is many characters especially Mr. Pumblechook who instantly takes a liking to Pip when he hears about his ‘great expectations’. In fact, Mr. Pumblechook even exploits Pip’s monetary prospects to establish his own social standing. He makes false reports to the local newspaper about his role in Pip’s greatness. Besides, it is also clear that money corrupted Compeyson. At a young age, Miss Havisham inherited her father’s wealth and fell in love with Compeyson. However, he abandoned her on their wedding day for her money.
His obsession with money completely ruined her; she became bitter and cold. For example, she brings up Estella in order to take vengeance on men. She tells Estella to ‘you can break his heart’, and asks Pip, ‘Do you love her?’ hoping to set him up. She not only exploits Estella but also Pip; she pretends to be Pip’s benefactor in order to make Sarah Pocket extremely jealous. By creating Miss Havisham, Dickens demonstrates the dangers wealth possesses by its destruction of her love and the source of her sorrow. The character Drummle is another perfect example of one being corrupted by money.
Like Miss Havisham, he is born into a prestigious family. He is arrogant, oafish, and abusive. Jaggers even names Drummle ‘the spider’ and tells Pip to stay away from him. He can even be considered hypocritical as he sneers at Pip and Herbert for their large spending habits whilst he himself buys extravagantly as well. Drummle is simply corrupted by the privileges and wealth of his family. Dickens sets up all of these characters as selfish and self-absorbed. Personally, Dickens is telling us that money should not be the driving force in life. He reinforces his point through the character of Pip. Pip’s acquirement of wealth and status does nothing but corrupt him; he ignores people that care for him and even puts himself in danger of being arrested. Dickens tells us that ‘Herbert and I (Pip) went on from bad to worse, in the way of increasing our debts’.
Dickens also suggests that true love and friendship is not found by being egotistical and self-centred, but caring and being there for one another. This is portrayed by the Joe-Pip symbiotic relationship. We can see that they both suffer at the hands Mrs Joe:
“I supposed that both Joe Gargery and I were brought up by hand.”
They are together in everything they do in the forge and Pip says, ‘I love Joe – perhaps for no better reason than because the dear fellow let me love him’. We can also see that their relationship is one based on trust; Joe is not only his fatherly-figure, but his friend. When Pip lied about his visit to Miss Havisham, we could see Pip’s guilt from not telling Joe the truth. However, he could not keep the secret from Joe for long which shows that he cares for him. When he told Joe that ‘it was all lies’, Joe responded saying, ‘Terrible? Awful! What possessed you?’ It is clear that Joe is incapable of lies. Their relationship is also made more unique through the forge. This is presented as special territory for Joe and Pip, where Mrs. Joe cannot intrude. Joe guides Pip through his journey of becoming a blacksmith. We also see Joe think highly of Pip. For instance, Pip takes an hour or two to write three sentences that makes little sense, and Joe tells him, ‘You ARE a scholar’. We can see that Joe did not go to school and had ‘unmerciful parents’; we get the impression that Joe wants Pip to have all the things that he missed out on when he was a child. Again, we see his love for Pip as he never tries to stand in his way:
“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, and as I may say, one man’s a blacksmith, one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisioins among such must come, and must be met as they come.”
It is clear that despite the love they share between them, Joe will not hold him back at the forge. He even refuses to receive any compensation for the loss of Pip’s services from Mr. Jaggers. Even after Pip openly shows his embarrassment of Joe, Joe still comes back for him in the end when Pip suffers from an illness. Joe tells Pip, ‘You and me was ever friends. And when you are well enough to out for a ride – what larks!’ Their friendship survived all obstacles and brought both of them happiness. Dickens is saying that when things are not what they seem, people should hold on to the things they love.
Dickens shows us that the world is vindictive by Pip’s inability to find happiness as his life deteriorates. We can see that Pip’s life at the forge is paradoxically ideal and unsatisfying. It is ideal because we can see Pip is happy. Despite being patronised by his sister and uncle Pumblechook, he has a true friend, Joe, who helps and nurtures him through it. Pip also has a determined future of becoming a blacksmith taught by Joe. However, it is also unsatisfying because as soon as he is introduced to the high life, he is ashamed of his humble upbringing. He loves Estella and wants to be with her, except she rejects ‘common labouring boys’.
Even when his dream of becoming a gentleman to impress Estella finally comes true, she still rejects him and plans on marrying Drummle. We get the impression that the world is against Pip and it is nearly impossible for him to win over the love of his life. Another example of the vindictive world involves the convict. Magwitch dedicates his life to have Pip educated as a gentleman, and then risks being hanged to see his creation. Magwitch says, “You acted noble, my boy…Noble, Pip! And I have never forgot it!” Pip then rejects Magwitch and refuses to take another cent from him. At this point, we begin to empathise with the convict and as he draws closer to death, we sympathise him more and more. We can see how the world was stacked against him as he suffered the full penalties for his crimes, whilst Compeyson was able to wriggle free.
Dickens conveys the unpredictability of the world through the landscape. It is significant that Pip lives on the edge of the marshes; it is all too easy for him to go from the protective forge to the dark wilderness. Throughout the novel, the marshes return to threaten him. For example, we first meet the convict on the marshes; he comes across as a monstrous character that absolutely petrifies Pip. It is also the place where the escaped convicts are found fighting each other. Later on the novel, Pip falls into Orlick’s trap and is about to be killed out on the marshes, but Herbert saves him. The mist symbolises the fact that nothing is what it seems. Miss Havisham and the Convict for instance are characters with a huge amount of money, yet beyond that lay unhappiness the absence of love. Pip has to learn to look with more imagination and perception.
Throughout Great Expectations, Charles Dickens displays the corrupting power of wealth through many of the characters. These characters are all unhappy and unsatisfied with their lives. Firstly, Miss Havisham has her heart broken by Compeyson. Drummle also is a selfish and egotistical man. Directly after he mistreats Estella, he dies in a riding incident involving a horse he has just beaten. Pip’s life becomes superficial and he almost loses his friends and family in his pursuit to of the higher society. Dickens is warning us that wealth can also corrupt anybody, even someone as innocent, selfless, and magnanimous as Pip. In addition to this, self -discovery is also an important part of the novel as all of these characters learn their lesson; wealth does not buy happiness and love. An example is when Pip says, ‘Oh! Joe, you break my heart! Look angry at me, Joe. Strike me, Joe. Tell me of my ingratitude. Don’t be so good to me!’ This shows that Pip realised what sort of man he became, and therefore learnt his lesson. Miss Havisham also realised the full extent of what she did to Estella and Pip. She says, ‘What have I done? What have I done!’ Dickens is saying that people eventually learn from their mistakes, usually by obtaining guilt or humility first.
‘Great Expectations’ is a novel full of ironies, ‘cliff-hangers’, and extremity with a compelling story line that forces us to become amused if not addicted to it. The novel is not only beautifully written, but it also forces us to reflect on crucial social and moral issues.